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On The Left – Return – Being political

Monday 11 February, 2002.

Hear ye, hear ye – tidings from the left have returned. After a dormancy of some eighteen months, my writing itch has returned. This week’s column will remind you who I am, and will look at why being political can be tough at times.

On The Left first appeared on October 25th, 1999. (You can find the first issue here - http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK9910/S00149.htm - a piece on the Alliance’s future which is quite strange to read these days.) It was designed as a few columns in support of Labour’s election campaign, but stretched out considerably longer.

There were a few mistakes along the way – a West Coast column that generated considerable anger is a prime example – but in general, I got good feedback and was able to think through some issues of the day for an intelligent audience. I liked writing the column, and the only reason I stopped was the pressure of University work, Labour Party activity, and maintaining at least the semblance of normality took up all my time.

Since then, I’ve finished University and I’ve moved to Wellington. I’m three years older, and I’ve travelled a lot more. Hopefully some of that will show in future issues of this column.

I hope to take a reasonably analytical approach to what I write, but to do it in a way that’s as accessible as possible. There are a lot of ideas in politics that can be made to sound immensely complicated when they aren’t, and that’s just embarrassing. I hope to avoid it, and I appreciate feedback if the jargon is too much.

And on to the real column bit…

If you don’t remember from last time, I am a partisan columnist. I am heavily involved with the Labour Party and its youth wing, Young Labour. Take from that what you will. In too many areas of public life, people who are involved in party politics are written off as being either drones with no ideas of their own, or somehow corrupt for dirtying their hands in politics. Both those views, which are conservative ones, are part of a wider right wing attack on what it means to be a citizen. They try to push the political into the private sphere, leaving public life full of professionals or right wingers.

My view is somewhat different. People often engage in politics, either formally or informally. There’s nothing wrong with that; on the contrary, it should be celebrated. The only successful democracy is one where the people at large are engaged in some way. One of the challenges facing politics in New Zealand is the need for parties to tap into that debate and that politics, rather than expecting people to come into our own structures on our, 19th century, terms.

The problem with saying politics is wrong, is that it seems to imply a total falsehood: that anything could be apolitical in the first place. Everything in our society is, in one way or another, a product of social relations and power relations in particular. There’s no such thing as a neutral politician, sure. Nor is there such a thing as a neutral news story, set of statistics, journalist, or anything else. Every single piece of information is perceived by people through the lens of their perspectives on life, their prejudices, their experience and their state of mind. You can be reasonably sure of some facts, but you then have to look at the systems from which they emerge, where they come from, and so on.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that life’s just not that simple. Everybody is coming at issues and at life with a background that will colour how they see things, think about things, and so on. To single out the people who have made the additional step of taking their views into an organised forum for debate and policy making, and suddenly pretend they are a class apart to be treated with suspicion and sometimes hostility, is simply not reasonable.

This might sound to some of you like a plea from an activist who doesn’t like the occasional bad response to people finding out he’s political. Well, write it off if you like, but it’s more serious than that. What would be the consequences of continued derision of, and attacks on, being political?

We would see fewer and fewer good people putting themselves forward for public office, if the consequence is their reputations being attacked all the time. It will curtail people’s involvement in the political parties, which like it or not are the only means by which citizens can play an active part in determining the country’s collective destiny. It would cheapen the ability to have meaningful public debate about the future direction of the country, because to have a real debate, people have to take sides.

As someone who is optimistic about the ability of societies to change their way of being and chart their own course, I regard politics in and of itself as an important process. The democratic framework allows for a wide range of potential courses to be charted into a future that is largely unknown. Its strength is that it allows information to be shared and a wide variety of views to be debated and discussed, and should in theory lead to a better outcome than some supposedly all-wise Government (or all-wise business sector) deciding where to go.

So, next time you find out someone is in a political party (and there are at least 50,000 of us out there), try listening to them. Sure, to some extent they’ll have taken on board their party’s perspective – they wouldn’ t have joined it otherwise. But we are just the same as you, really – we just say our stuff in public sometimes.


Next week, a look at the broad electoral coalition Helen Clark has put together, and some thoughts on why it’ll be successful in November.

Till then,

Jordan Carter

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